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On Being a Loner

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Today is Family Day in certain provinces in Canada. It’s a day off work and a long weekend for many working people. I suppose the expectation is for people to spend the extra free time with their families. What if you don’t have a family?

I have never been married and have no children. I’ve lived alone most of my adult life, and for the past several years I’ve worked at home. I’ve had romantic relationships, but they tend to be short-lived, never lasting more than two years, and usually lasting only a few months. I don’t do well in groups, either. I belong to a church, but its services annoy me so much that I don’t go often. I keep a small circle of close friends but can go weeks without seeing some of them. Perhaps I have a lower need for people than most.

I don’t dislike people. They are endlessly entertaining. I dislike it when people don’t think or don’t make sense, which unfortunately, seems to be a lot of the time, in my opinion. For years, irritability has been one of the main symptoms of my depression, including all those years before I was diagnosed. At least that’s what I tell myself, that it’s depression that makes me irritable and not just a basically grumpy, self-centred personality. I do enjoy meeting interesting people, but I find I have to take most people, even my favourite people, in limited doses.

I believe we are programmed, by both biology and society, to want to be around people and to want to find a partner and have a family. Our genes produce in us a desire to be close to other people and make us feel lonely when we’re alone, because for thousands of years, we survived better in groups than alone. Our genes also urge us to find a compatible mate and reproduce to pass on those genes.

The societies we live in reward friendly, cooperative behaviours and punish, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, selfish and anti-social behaviours. We receive many kinds of messages from our social environment that to be “normal”, you must get married and have children, and you must involve yourself with other people. I generally don’t worry a lot about being normal, but it’s pretty hard to escape your genes.

How important are people and relationships (of all kinds, not just romantic) to me? Every once in a while (generally when I’m having a mid-life crisis, which I tend to have every ten years or so) I sit down and write out a list of the things that are most important to me. I always list things like my health, self-development, or developing a career, but rarely anything involving close relationships with other people. I may write something like “compassion”, but as a generality, even that is impersonal. It never occurs to me to write things like “my family”, “friends”, or “relationships”. I might write “a long-term relationship”, and then do very little to make it happen. I shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find myself alone most of the time. I do enjoy my solitude, and many of the activities I enjoy most, plus my work, are things I need to be alone to do.

I don’t think I’m atypical of depressives. Many of us find ourselves with few friends and family members in our lives. We isolate ourselves and don’t expend the effort required to make and keep social relationships. We tend to want to be left alone a lot of the time, but then when we do want to have someone close by, there is no one. We haven’t laid the groundwork necessary to build relationships we can rely on. My two closest friends, when I call them, immediately ask, “What do you want?” I so seldom call them that when I do, they assume I need something. They are usually right, but for some reason they don’t seem to mind.

I’m trying to turn that around. Not just so I can have people around me when I need someone, but so I can have a richer life for having better relationships. Some of my most memorable moments have been when I met an interesting person or when I felt a close connection with a romantic partner. A deep conversation with a person I didn’t know well before can excite me so much that I can’t sleep that night.

Contact with other people has its risks. At best, we usually end up having to sacrifice some of the things we want so that those we care about can have some of what they want. At worst, we get hurt by people, whether through abuse, insensitivity, or just unfortunate circumstances. Good boundaries go a long way toward keeping yourself safe in dealings with other people, but if you have problems knowing where and how to draw boundaries, it can be simpler to deal with problems by just removing yourself from the situation completely. This means, though, that you never get any better at setting boundaries that will help you stay in relationships.

So, I’m working on increasing the amount of social contact I have, and the degree to which I engage with people. I went to church yesterday and was glad I did. The sermon touched me, and I had a couple of good conversations during coffee time after the service. Today I walked to a coffee shop to read instead of staying home all day. I don’t kid myself by thinking that I will take advantage of every opportunity to get out and socialize, but I will keep nudging myself in that direction. It will become easier with time and practice.


Take care of each other


  1. Jen
    February 21, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I have had few friends in my life. I have always had a hard time making and keeping friends. My family is small and outside of my immediate family, there is no one. I am single with a cat.

    I am a loner but I am also lonely and don’t really react well to being alone. I wasn’t meant to be alone but I feel overwhelmed with a lot of people and unworthy. I am not just talking about romantic relationships. Just having someone to talk to or to pick up the phone (a big anxiety in me) to invite someone for coffee (I just wrote about that the other day), is very hard.

    I need a happy medium of contact and alone time that I can not seem to find.

    • February 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      This happy medium is such a common problem that it has a name: the porcupine dilemma. I struggle with a similar problem, and I fear that I am becoming more and more prickly as I get older.

      Is there a depression support group in your area Jen? I have had good experiences with them, as everyone there understands what I’m going through. Most of my best friends (and more than one ex-girlfriend) have mood disorders.

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